In 1980 Space Invaders, Asteroids, Battlezone, Missile Command, and Pac-Man were dominating the arcades. I was 13 years old, and for the first time my parents let me go to an arcade with my friends. While I was waiting for my turn on the video games, I walked around the arcade, paying little attention to the skee bowling and air hockey tables. But as I moved in front of the row of pinball machines, I stopped and stared. Though I had seen pinball machines before, I had never seen a pinball machine like this.
I kept staring at the sexy sci-fi girl on the backglass art, at the lights flashing on the playfield and chasing around the backglass, at the cool-looking tube running across the upper playfield. All the while, a sexy voice ooh'd and aah'd and offered the enticement to play her.
My pulse was racing.
My mouth was open.
I may have drooled a bit.
I might have even caught a couple of flies.
I stepped up and put a quarter in the machine. Or perhaps it was $.50...the price was inconsequential. I tested the flippers a few times, and thought "OK, I've got this." I launched the ball. And proceeded to get spanked. I think the game was over in about 2 minutes. I stood there, stunned for a moment, unsure of what had just happened, as Xenon coo'd "play me again." So I put in more quarters, and got spanked again. But I pumped my fist when I hit a tube shot, while the voice of Suzanne Ciana continued to seduce me.
After awhile, I moved on to Gorgar. And got spanked again. Then it was on to Black Knight and Firepower. And suddenly I started killing it. One of my friends ran up and said it was my turn on Battlezone. I started to say "you can take my-" and then my ball drained and the game was over. "Okay, I'm coming." I ran off, but took a last look back. A passion had been born. I have a great reverence towards Xenon for being the game that hooked me on pinball.
I came to love pinball more than video games. But beyond the initial enticement of Xenon, why is this so? I've wracked my brain, tried to think of exactly what it is that draws me to a pinball machine and led me to wanting to own several of them. This is what I came up with:
- Unlike a video game, pinball has a physical, tangible feel to it. While video games of the 80s and 90s were nothing more than pixels on a screen, a pinball machine is real. The ball itself is a metal object that spins across a playfield, bumping into things, traveling up and down ramps, is attracted by magnets, can be launched by cannons or kickouts, and is able to move in a different direction by bumping the table. Coils and solenoids activate flippers and kickouts, switches are tripped, lights are energized and flash. You can remove the glass from the pinball, reach in and actually touch the parts. A video game, on the other hand, is simply software code running on a two dimensional screen with some circuit boards and wiring.
- Getting my hands dirty. Pinballs require maintenance. A lot of maintenance. I'm not talking just about circuit boards and wiring - video games have that too. I'm talking about cleaning parts, polishing ramps and playfields, repairing flippers and rubbers and broken parts. It is a blending of mechanical and electrical, video and electronics, elbow grease and troubleshooting. Maintaining a pinball is, to me, an essential part of the experience. Although it can be frustrating when a game goes down, and is sometimes hard to find parts, there is a certain satisfaction in bringing a machine back to life.
- Visual Appeal. Between the lighting of the playfield and beautiful artwork on the backglass, plus artwork on the sides of the cabinet, most pinball machines are gorgeous to look at. Usually a lot of thought went into the design of the pinball in order to attract players to a machine that was one of many in a crowded arcade. Sometimes instead of playing, I just enjoy watching the lights flash in Attract Mode - it's truly a thing of beauty.
- Unpredictability. No two pinball games are exactly the same. You can have a bad game and then have a good one. You are at the mercy of physics and the bounce of the ball. Games like Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong are coded to be the same every time you play them, and I get easily bored with that kind of game.
- Multiball. Often chaotic and exciting, the release of multiple balls in to the playfield is a blast, especially when there is a buildup and then the adrenaline rush is released. For those games that do multiball well, it is an outstanding feature.
- Ramps. They remind me of rollercoasters! They also add dimension to a machine. It's what makes White Water my favorite game.
Fast forward to 2004. I'm making a decent wage and have a little money saved up. My roommate Kelly was surfing eBay on our whopping 56K dialup modem. He had searched for bigfoot-related items and pulled up an auction page for a White Water pinball machine. I recognized that machine. I stopped, stunned.
"You can buy pinball machines?" I asked. "For home use?" My heart begins to race. I thought only arcades could buy (much less afford) pinball machines. I had never looked into it, and I didn't yet know about Craigslist nor the rec.games.pinball group. I remembered that I had played White Water in a bar somewhere several years before, and I thought I had really liked it. The seller described the game as being "shopped", and shipping was free, so I took the plunge and bought it, sight unseen. White Water became my first "home arcade" machine, and will be the last one I get rid of. In my opinion it's the best game ever made, thanks to the sound, ramps, speed, flow, and bigfoot toy, which all perfectly fit the theme. In many ways it has fulfilled the fun and desire promised by Xenon so many years ago.
Later in 2004 I added a Popeye Saves the Earth machine that I wasn't looking for, but the price was so good I couldn't pass it up. In 2006 I added Creature From the Black Lagoon and Scared Stiff; in 2008 I bought a Junk Yard (which left the collection earlier this year). I'm currently building a virtual pin, and I'm hoping to add two new machines to the collection by the end of the year. I'm also planning a trip to the Pacific Pinball Museum (in Alameda, CA) and the Pinball Hall of Fame (in Las Vegas) later this year.
Man that was long-winded! If you made it this far, I salute you!